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STEM-Talk

Episode 32: Dr. Claire Fraser explains how our gut microbes improve our health, prevent disease and even play a role in our mental health

// Feb 28, 2017

Women who are pregnant often talk how careful they are about what they eat and drink. They’re careful, points out Dr. Claire Fraser, because they’re feeding their baby.

“Well, we should all think about diet in the same way that pregnant women do,” says Fraser. “Everything we put into our mouths, we’re either feeding or not feeding our gut microbes … And it’s important we keep our gut microbes happy.”

Fraser is a pioneer and global leader in genomic medicine, a branch of molecular biology that focuses on the genome. In episode 32 of STEM-Talk, Fraser sits down with host Dawn Kernagis and IHMC founder Ken Ford to explain why we should all pay more attention to our guts, which is the home of more than 100 trillion bacteria.

An endowed professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Fraser is a founder and director of Maryland’s Institute for Genome Sciences. From 1998 to 2007, she was the director of the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, and led teams that sequenced the genomes of several microbial organisms, including important human and animal pathogens.

In 1995, she became the first person to map the complete genetic code of a free-living organism, Haemophilus Influenza, the bacterium that causes lower respiratory tract infections and meningitis in infants and young children. This discovery forever changed microbiology and launched a new field of study, microbial genomics.

During this time, she and her team also sequenced the bacteria behind syphilis and Lyme disease, and eventually the first plant genome and the first human-pathogenic parasite. She even helped identify the source of a deadly 2001 anthrax attack in one of the biggest investigations conducted by U.S. law enforcement.

Research into the benefits of gut bacteria has exploded around the world in the past decade.  In this STEM-Talk episode, Fraser explains the role these microbes play in improving health, preventing disease, and keeping us mentally sharp. She even shares how her diet has changed since she started studying the gut microbiome.

Fraser also talks about working with the FBI during the 2001 antrhax attacks and her early work in microbiology that led to the first mapping of a free-living organism’s complete genetic code.

Her recent lecture at IHMC, titled “The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease,” can be viewed at ihmc.us/lectures.

If you’re interested in learning more about the gut microbiome, Fraser in her lecture recommended “The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health” by Stanford University scientists Justin and Erica Sonnenburg.

1:36: Dawn reads the five-star iTunes review titled “Intellectually Stimulating.”

2:28: Dawn and Ken provide a summary of Claire’s background and research, pointing out that she has authored more than 320 scientific publications, edited three books, and has served on committees of the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and National Institutes of Health.

4:13: Dawn welcomes Claire to STEM-Talk.

4:27: Claire talks about growing up in a suburb of Boston and taking her first biology course as a freshman in high school, which set her on a path toward a career in science.

5:37: Dawn asks Claire what led her to study microbiology.

6:53: Ken points out that there are more microbes on a person’s hand than there are people in the world. He asks Claire to give listeners a short intro into “Microbiome 101.”

9:34: Claire talks about the role of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG), a strain of bacteria that is part of many popular probiotic products and has a reputation as a helpful microbe.

12:00: Ken asks Claire to expand upon the potential of probiotics and their usage in human beings.

14:56: Dawn points out that Claire is internationally known for her role in genome sequencing and asks what led Claire to establish the Institute of Genomics at Maryland.

18:02: Claire talks about her involvement in the first genome sequencing and where the technology stands today.

22:39: Dawn follows up with a question about how the evolution of sequencing technology has changed the way we monitor the spread of pathogens.

29:26: Claire talks about some of the new sequencing technology on the horizon.

32:02: Ken asks Claire to explain the kind of data-analysis challenges that this new technology is creating.

34:29: Claire describes her experience working on the anthrax attacks in 2001, which at the time was one of the biggest investigations conducted by U.S. law enforcement.

41:39: Dawn asks Claire about the effects of antibiotics on the gut.

47:00: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

47:25: Fraser talks about the early science of fecal transplants.

50:04: Ken asks Claire about the role of the microbiome in obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes.

52:38: Dawn asks what kinds of solutions there are against antibiotic-resistant strains.

57:15: Ken talks about increasing evidence of a connection between the gut and brain, and asks Claire to talk about what she has learned about the gut-brain connection.

1:02:47: Claire talks about preliminary research she and her colleagues at Maryland are doing on traumatic brain injury and the microbiome.

1:05:49: Dawn asks Claire to explain how diet affects the microbiome.

1:12:05: Ken points out that dietary fat has been demonized for several decades and asks Claire what she has learned about fat from a microbiome perspective.

1:15:27: Dawn asks Claire if her research into the gut has changed the way she eats.

1:18:48: The podcast ends with Dawn and Ken asking Claire to talk about her hobby of making wine.